I am a time traveler. No, I am not talking about literally going back in time as numerous authors have speculated. Unfortunately— or fortunately, depending on which author you read— literal time travel is still unavailable. Rather, I am talking about the powers of sentiment and memory, coupled with conversation and photographs and more permanent artifacts of times gone past, to transport me to a time and place I have been before.
On Sunday, Whirl had to go into the Museum to work. She had told me about an extensive photograph scanning system in the biology research wing. She and I had been recently experimenting with ways to quickly and easily convert some of our print photographs into digital photographs. Our first attempts consisted of simply taking pictures of the prints with our camera mounted on a tripod. That was not ideal, but it worked well enough to get some satisfaction out of the process. The biology photo scanning system is much better suited. Of particular interest to me, the system is able to scan black-and-white negatives.
In 1991 I lived in Germany. I spent the entire year there, landing in Berlin on January 1st. New Year’s Eve came to me that year on a Boeing 747 somewhere over the North Atlantic. I returned to the United States a day before Christmas Eve. I brought my camera with me: a 1965 Nikon Nikkormat FT Dad had given me. This was not the first camera I had ever used, but it was certainly the camera I learned the most about photography using.
In the mid-80s, Dad converted the smallest bathroom in our house into an amateur darkroom. He built a table over the bathtub out of an old closet door. He obtained second-hand enlargers, first black-and-white and eventually color, wherever he could find them inexpensively. He taught me how to shoot, develop film, and enlarge pictures. I went on to use what I had learned to shoot photographs and develop pictures for my High School newspaper and yearbook. And in college, I took the camera along with dozens of rolls of bulk-loaded black-and-white film with me to Europe.
When I came back to the States I developed all the film that had not been damaged or suffered accidental light-leaks. I made a few contact prints and carefully packed up the negatives— promising myself that I would get around to developing the best of the pictures someday.
It has taken me sixteen years to start to honor that promise to myself. I have not looked at these pictures in the interim. They have remained safely packed away among the other sentimental keepsakes of my life: newspapers, letters, curious hats. Now instead of working in a darkroom, I am working on a suite of computers. And every picture I work on takes me right back to the place and time I took it with that trusty Nikkormat. There are even a couple pictures of me in and among the rolls. I have hundreds of pictures to go through. Most of them are not particularly good. I learned that lesson early: take lots of pictures; expect one or two good shots per roll. That lesson is even more appropriate with digital photography. Film has never been cheaper.
I find power in these sixteen year-old pictures in their ability to tell me something about myself. 1991 transformed me. I learned that the world was a larger, more complicated place than a small town in Colorado or Indiana. I began an appreciation for art and architecture. I developed a love for travel. For the first time I became comfortable in my own skin. These photographs, viewed through a lens more than a decade and a half long, reaffirm that. They give me confidence. They remind me of the places I’ve been.
Both literal and figurative.